My parents were born and raised in Denmark, just a few miles from each other in the countryside north of Copenhagen. Danes are secular and irreverent, heavy consumers of alcohol, tobacco, and pornography. My parents were both brought up as Seventh-Day Adventists, an austere sect of Christianity that was viewed with skeptical peculiarity in Denmark. They didn’t actually meet until years later in Michigan, where my Dad was finishing his PhD and teaching at a small Adventist college. My Mom had come there to further her nursing career. Less than a year after meeting they were engaged. This is the dimple in time when they met, and when my arrow in time began to stiffen.
What was it like when you first met? Was it a big coincidence or did friends try and set you up?
Dad: We met in Pioneer Memorial Church at Andrews University. It was a Friday night and I knew there were two Danish girls coming. Both of them were blonde-headed. One of them was shorthaired the other was longhaired. So since that was the same culture I came from I thought maybe there would be some potential.
Mom: My girlfriend Eva and I walked through the doors and he sat in the row behind us. We didn’t know him, but after the program he walked up and introduced himself. I asked him how he recognized it was us that were the two Danish girls and he said “Oh it was very easy to pick us out of the crowd.” Eva said “Yeah, no make-up and hair on our legs.”
Dad: Years ago we had actually attended the same summer camp in Denmark. We lived only fifteen miles from each other but had never met.
What did you think of him when he first came up to you? Did you think he was handsome?
Mom: I was very neutral. I didn’t get any strong feelings or emotions one way or the other. I noticed he was a little on edge with his body language. But I knew he was of Danish descent and he was finishing his PhD and I always liked educated people. So right away those were two assets in my book.
Dad: I thought she was pretty. One thing I remember was that she had a unique smell to her.
What was her smell like?
Dad: Well, I can’t describe that. I don’t know if it was just perfume or what. She also had a wonderful head of hair, lush blonde hair.
How long did it take between then and when you went on your first real date?
Mom: It kind of cruised slowly. The big excuse was that we were Danes, and the Danes were always getting together for outings. We would go camping, have fires at the beach, he would invite his students, have sing-a-longs, then we’d grill vegetarian burgers. Then we had some other Danish friends so we’d always date in groups. We’d debate all kinds of philosophical issues, ethical dilemmas, religious issues, and that kind of thing. I guess the beginning of our relationship was based more on friendship and common interest in intellectual and religious issues.
Dad: Of course, beforehand I’d already been teaching there for three years as a single faculty member. My experience was there were lots of girls that wanted me but I didn’t want them. And the girls I wanted didn’t want me.
Did you find yourself thinking up excuses to spend more time with Mom.
Dad: Oh yeah, there were all kinds of situations–I’d go across the road or she’d come over. I remember one time I had to work in the office and she had come home from the hospital and was going to a program but I couldn’t go because I had so much school work to do. She had brought me along some apples as a gift.
Mom: During that fall we started going for walks when I was off work–I was both taking full-time classes and working full-time as a nurse in the nearby hospital. Dad would come pick me up after work around 11 or 11:30 at night and we’d go to the beach and take moonshine walks. Then in November we had prayer meeting and it was a custom that we would stand in circles, young people praying together and holding hands and so he would like to hold my hand there and continue holding my hand. But it was very subtle. He was cautious in the way he didn’t want to risk rejection, so he waited a long time before he came forward in a more obvious way.
When did you know you wanted to have a more romantic relationship?
Dad: That happened along the way. I can’t think of a specific moment. In our tradition there was a strong negative feeling toward physical expression. You know the school where I was teaching they had boys and girls separated. There was even a dean of women there and the story goes that when the girls were undressing at night they’d have pictures of their boyfriends and she would ask them to turn the pictures of their boyfriends away when they were undressing.
When was the first time that you kissed?
Mom: It was probably after Christmas, in the early spring.
What was it like? Was it on one of those beach walks under the moonlight?
Mom: Yeah, one of the beach walks. It wasn’t one of those big memorable things. I think it was after work when he picked me up and we walked around Lake Michigan.
Did you feel self-conscious at all having a romantic relationship in such a conservative community?
Dad: Yeah, that was kind of pushed on us in that social setting, to be very restrained physically in every respect. As time went on that diminished. In some situations it was prohibited to have public displays of affection. That was against the rules of the game.
How did you deal with that? Did you just plan to be in your house when you fooled around?
Dad: Well that was another thing–when she approached me I would sometimes push her off a little and I think she kind of resented that. She should have dropped me immediately. But that was just the imprint of that no public display of affection.
So when did Dad propose?
Mom: He liked to fly. So he rented a plane and said let’s go and explore Northern Michigan.
Dad: I had thought about it. I decided to take her, because I was a private pilot, I invited her out on an afternoon on a lake. So we flew out, it was one of these tiny airports, there was nothing there, it was just a grass strip.
Mom: We flew way out in the wilderness to a very remote spot. We had a picnic lunch and we spent time there and enjoyed it. Maybe he had decided to pose the question at that time. But he didn’t. I didn’t really think too much about it either. We just had a good time and then flew back. Then as he left he handed me a letter and he proposed in the letter.
Dad: I’m not a good writer, you know. I sat chewing on the pencil. It was not easy or flowing to write it. I wanted to express what I felt, my background, philosophy.
Were you afraid of rejection while you were thinking of what to say?
Dad: No, I didn’t think that. We knew each other well enough. I didn’t think that would be a realistic possibility. We did have some confrontation before where she had said “If that’s what it’s like then there’s no way.”
What was she talking about?
Dad: It was with my attitude, we were going to take a trip. She likes things fixed and determined and I had been flexible and at the last minute made some changes to the plan. She was very upset. To me it was not that big a deal.
So what happened when you got the letter?
Mom: I didn’t get to read it until after he left. So the next day I was going to respond to him and started writing. Before I could get very far there was a knock on the door and here it was Dad. He said “What did you think? Will you marry me?” So I never really got to write the response? The way of the proposal was that of typical Christianity of the day. One of the points he said was “I give myself to you not as a toy to be played with but as an invitation to walk together in exploring life and being committed to god.” That was basically it.
Dad: I had good enough sensibility that I’d know what the answer would be—you know when you’re with somebody on a frequent basis. So that turned out that way too.
What did you sense about her feelings for you?
Dad: I thought it was reciprocal. I had an admiration for her, and there were many things that were similar but there were also enough contrast and difference to create a healthy tension.
What did you think of that proposal?
Mom: It fit very well into my sense of reality and my commitment to god and the way I was brought up. Another thing he had said on another time was that if I married him I’d get to travel a lot. I was thinking that I’d always wanted to travel. Even if I hadn’t met him I’d still be traveling. So we had that in common as well. We liked to explore and travel.
Dad: We met in the August of ’71, and then we got engaged on July 4 of the next year. That was a very, very short courtship. Then we married on September 17.
Mom: That was the background and culture that we came out of. That was how we looked at life. We had a purpose and we were committed to god–it sounds so trivial to say “serving god”–we wanted to have something to offer humanity in terms of service. That’s why church was a priority for both dad and I. We couldn’t imagine marrying somebody that didn’t have a similar philosophy of life.